Thoughts on Raising a Tolerant Child

On Saturday, we were driving home from a birthday party. Anders was holding a blue balloon, formerly used to decorate a table, and chattering excitedly about the day. I was nodding my head along to the rhythm of his voice. We agreed that the party was fun, that it would be his birthday soon too, and that blue was the best tasting of all colored icings.

That’s when he asked me if he could have a piece of string when we got home.

“String? What do you want a piece of string for?” I asked.

“For my balloon, mom. Balloons without strings can’t fly. I want this one to fly. So, I need to tie it with a string.”

This moment, this completely simple moment, was profound to me. I looked at my husband and we both chuckled at our son’s deductive reasoning. Knowing nothing of science, I too might decide that strings give balloons their ability to float. I explained to him that the power did not reside in the string, but in what the balloon was filled with. His was filled with air and would never fly the way a balloon filled with Helium could. I spared him the part about Helium being one of six noble gases — the least reactive next to Neon. After all, I didn’t want to spoil the surprise that awaited him in freshman chemistry.

It was an innocent and sweet moment, a glimpse into the naivety of a child, but it also sparked (or perhaps reignited) a realization of my own. What if I hadn’t explained to him that a string wouldn’t allow the balloon to fly? What if I allowed him to continue in this misguided way of thinking? In this instance, one might argue little harm would be done. Perhaps he’d find string to tie to the balloon and learn that his presumption was incorrect, but what about other inferences and conclusions our children form on a daily basis? The ones that left uncorrected will do damage?

It wasn’t so long ago that Anders and I sat flipping through channels on a Saturday morning. I stopped on a cartoon and turned to him for approval. “I don’t want to watch shows with brown people,” he said. I ran a gamut of emotions in that moment — shame, anger, sadness. I felt them all. After a heart-to-heart talk, I learned that Anders had been pushed on the playground by a kid at school. He had just begun attending preschool. Previously, he was cared for by my sister in her home while I worked and this was his first experience with children of other ethnicities and also with bullying. His mind had connected the two.

I spent a lot of time that morning talking with him. It was a conversation I had to get right because it was one that, to me, my success as a parent hinged upon. Raising a tolerant and open-minded adult is my measure of success for parenthood. Afterwards, I had thoughts similar to the ones I had following our chat about the balloon, only these troubled me much more.

We, as parents, are all shaping minds. Sure, they may reach adulthood and abandon our ideas. They will grow into their own person, but the core values instilled in them? That is a seed that we plant.

Children aren’t born as sexists or bigots or racists or close-minded. Quite the contrary, they are open. Open even to the fun and magical idea that strings grant the power of flight.  It is we who close their minds for them. The responsibilities we hold as parents aren’t just to our children, but to the world and future at large.

Sometimes motherhood is a lot like standing next to the ocean. I feel small, overwhelmed, when I look out at the next 14 years stretched before us, and the decades that follow when I hope my input and guidance will still be of value to him.

I can only hope that somewhere between bullies and balloons he receives the message I am trying my best to deliver to him.

Photo credit: Flickr

Related: “Does my three-year-old have race issues?”

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